Love of Detroit’s architecture began early
When Benjamin Gravel was a boy, his parents showed him a copy of W. Hawkins Ferry’s famous compendium of local architecture, The Buildings of Detroit. The moment young Ben opened it, he was hooked.
This early love of old buildings prompted Gravel and a friend a few years ago to start a Facebook page called Historical Detroit Area Architecture – a website that now has around 8,500 members.
Its location is yet another sign that Metro Detroiters have awakened to a new appreciation for what they have here – a fabulous collection of buildings from all generations from the mid-19th century to the present. This pride in the past may have faded somewhat during the city’s long economic decline, but its revival is another sign of hope for the region.
“This group is simply insatiable in their appetite to learn about the city and its architectural history,” says Gravel.
The 53-year-old Gravel runs a computer repair shop in Grosse Pointe Woods and travels the area in his free time to take his photos. The Facebook page contains Gravel’s photos of historic houses, churches, and other structures with brief summaries of the building’s history and sometimes a quick comment or two. Readers send comments or questions that he tries to answer. His friend Jeff Lubeck helps manage the website and keeps things tidy.
Of all building types, Kies is the favorite of historic houses, and these photos tend to be the overwhelming favorites of his site visitors. Gravel estimates he has photos of around 2,500 to 3,000 buildings in his files, as well as information on hundreds of architects.
Fans of historical architecture have taken note.
“Ben is a simple and accessible way to get common people to learn more about the architecture of the area – and then hopefully care more about it,” said Dan Austin, who runs and updates the HistoricDetroit.org website Administration by Mayor Mike Duggan has been discontinued to deal with his social media. “You don’t get stuck in a dense terminology or speak of Corinthian columns, consoles and balustrades. It’s just about the beauty and history of the buildings around us and the people who brought them to life.”
Curtis Blessing, a lawyer whose late father Charles Blessing was Detroit’s planning director for a quarter of a century between the 1950s and 1970s, repeated this.
“Ben Gravel’s commitment to documenting and indexing historic buildings in the greater Detroit area enriches our understanding and appreciation of local history,” he said. “His Facebook group page is an easily accessible, virtual museum of local architecture and the people – architects, builders and owners – who created our city.”
The intense interest of the fans occupies Gravel.
“It forces me to go out and find more buildings,” he says. “I have 400 buildings in Detroit that I have yet to take pictures of and that was essentially until 1922 that I was able to explore.”
It’s a love affair that started early.
“When I was very little my parents were members of the Detroit Boat Club and one of the goodies that drove home was driving around Indian Village,” says Gravel. And as he grew up, he continued, “I always drew pictures of houses, maybe because I see all the great residential architecture in the city.”
Gravel first started posting photos of his favorite buildings on his personal Facebook page, and friends asked him to give them tours of the city. Since it was difficult to coordinate all requests, he saw posting photos on a Facebook group page as an easier way.
“It snowed from there,” he said. “Now I am on this search.”
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.